September 23, 2009

Algaeus lives! A modified Prius goes cross-country on fuel from algae

You really can drive across country on algae and a 700-pound battery pack, or so proved the crew behind the documentary Fuel . Embarking on September 8 and pulling into New York City today, just in time for the film’s premiere, the Algaeus covered 3,750 miles.

“It got 147 miles-per-gallon in the city,” says Fuel director Josh Tickell of the converted to plug-in Prius hybrid that he drove on a mix of battery power and algae fuel blended with conventional gasoline. The Algaeus did less well on the highway: 52 mpg, because of the lack of regenerative braking that recharges the battery, among other things.

The algae came from 22 acres of special ponds at Sapphire Energy’s research and development facility in New Mexico, where local strains of the microscopic plant grow in vats of saltwater while being fed CO2 that would otherwise go into Coca-Cola and other fizzy drinks, according to Tim Zenk, a spokesman for Sapphire.

The company claims that its algae produce at least 30 percent by weight of oil and they delivered approximately five gallons of gasoline derived from their algal oil to prove it. Refined by Syntroleum in Louisiana, the algae gasoline behaved no differently in the car, according to the driving crew.

Of course, that’s because the mix in the cylinder was roughly five percent algae-derived gasoline and 95 percent 91-octane premium gasoline. And with the addition of a second battery pack in the trunk, courtesy of Plug-In Conversions, the Algaeus could travel 25 miles on electricity alone (after six hours of charging).

In the 10-day journey, the crew did not manage to get rid of the new car smell, but they did manage to get some thumbs up—and break some speed limits—on the long trek. They also proved that algae fuel doesn’t smell too much like a neglected swimming pool, although some of the unrefined oil can be redolent of the ocean, Zenk says.

“We really view it, not to sound grandiose, as an Apollo mission for algae and renewable fuel,” says Fuel producer Rebecca Harrell, of the first cross-country trip on algae fuel and battery power.

Ultimately, the filmmakers hope to offer an insight into alternatives that are here today. After all Sapphire claims to get about 5,000 gallons of algal oil per acre of pond. The next step? Raising $1 billion to build a 10,000 barrel a day facility in New Mexico, Zenk says. “At that level, we can produce algal oil for $60 to $80 per barrel.” Or roughly the cost of conventional oil today. And that might herald the real start of alternative fuels from algae.

- By David Biello

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